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When Did Humans Come to the Americas?

Recent scientific findings date their arrival earlier than ever thought, sparking hot debate among archaeologists

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Jenkins and his colleagues published the final results this year and closed the site: “We’ve gotten to the bottom,” he said. “We’ve convinced the people who are willing to be convinced that the caves are as old as Clovis, if not older.”

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Perhaps the most radical scholarly work suggests the Americas were colonized first by immigrants from Europe several thousand years before Clovis. The theory is the brainchild of Dennis Stanford, a curator of North American archaeology at the National Museum of Natural History, and Bruce Bradley, an archaeologist at Britain’s University of Exeter. In their 2012 book Across Atlantic Ice, they suggest that these Europeans reached the New World more than 20,000 years ago, settled in the eastern United States, developed the Clovis technology over several thousand years, then spread across the continent.

This theory is based partly on similarities between Clovis points and finely crafted “laurel leaf” points from Europe’s Solutrean culture, which flourished in southwestern France and northern Spain between 24,000 and 17,000 years ago. Stanford and Bradley argue that artifacts found at Page-Ladson, as well as other pre-Clovis sites, including the Meadowcroft Rock Shelter in western Pennsylvania and the sand dunes of Cactus Hill in southeastern Virginia, have similarities to Solutrean technologies.

The Solutreans, whose territory on the European continent was apparently rather compact, may have been forced by encroaching glaciers and extreme cold to cluster on the Atlantic coast. At some point, Stanford and Bradley say, the stresses of overpopulation may have forced some Solutreans to escape by sea. They headed north and west beneath the Atlantic ice sheet to nudge into North America at the Grand Banks of Newfoundland.

Stanford and Bradley say evidence for the Solutreans’ presence in America includes stone artifacts gathered by archaeologists at several sites on the eastern shore of Chesapeake Bay, all producing dates more than 20,000 years old. Most of the dates were derived from organic material found with the artifacts. The exception was a mastodon tusk with attached bone and teeth netted by a fisherman in 1974, along with a laurel leaf-shaped stone knife. Stanford found the tusk to be 22,760 years old. Among other things, the Solutrean hypothesis provides context not only for the Clovis people, but also for North America’s pre-Clovis sites. And it does not rule out Bering Sea migrations—those could have happened, too.

“Solutrean evolved into Clovis over close to 13,000 years,” Stanford said, and the Clovis hunters began migrating westward when the cold snap brought dry, windy, inhospitable weather to the East Coast.

But the archaeological evidence found so far in support of a European migration more than 20,000 years ago has raised skepticism. And as is the case with the kelp highway, many sites that could prove or disprove the hypothesis are now underwater. Dillehay said he had found the idea of an Atlantic crossing worthy of further investigation, even though “the hard evidence is not yet there.”

Waters, of Texas A&M, is skeptical. “I’m looking for clean evidence,” he said. “We’re past ‘Clovis first,’ and we’re developing a new model. You read the literature and you use your imagination, but then you have to go out and find the empirical evidence to support your hypothesis.”

None of the doubts expressed by critics have stopped Stanford and Bradley, veterans of the Clovis wars, from pushing forward. “Solutrean people became more and more efficient in exploiting the rich sea margin resources,” they write in Across Atlantic Ice. “Eventually their range expansion led them to a whole new world in the west.”

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